Many have proclaimed the tight end position took a forward leap last season that could be measured in light years. The truth is, the position has been evolving steadily over the last ten years, particularly since the rule changes that limited contact in the defensive backfield were implemented. Only two guys truly had "revolutionary" seasons in 2012, and while I teased you with the excerpt to this article, I don't see anyone joining Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham in that group in 2012.
Proponents of Value-Based Drafting systems, which essentially measure players' worth by comparing the spread between each player and a "baseline" starter at their position, will argue taking Gronk or Graham is a wise move early in your draft. It's hard to refute this stance, as each guy accumulated WR1-type stats in 2011 and blew away their peers. If you don't find yourself in a position to draft them or simply can't get on board with drafting a tight end with such a valuable pick, however, the position is deep, and loaded with potential.
And that's what I'll be looking for.
Just because I don't believe there's another uber-elite tight end out there, doesn't mean I won't be trying to find one. After the top two guys (three, if you're buying the "Antonio Gates is healthy" rhetoric, I'm not), I'll be focusing on size and speed. Athletically gifted tight ends have become a match-up nightmare for defenses and frequent red zone targets.
Aaron Hernandez, Vernon Davis, and Jermichael Finley are all nice players who I anticipate having good seasons, but they are priced accordingly. Each is going off the board in the first 60 selections. As with all my breakout columns, the goal is to find excess value from guys a little deeper.
Here goes nothing.
5. Kyle Rudolph - Minnesota Vikings - |STAR|ADP 156
|STAR|average draft position referenced from FantasyPros.com composite rankings as of 9/1/12 as per a suggestion from Scott Pianowski
Rudolph has long been destined for my sleepers column, but I decided to bump him into the breakout category. The biggest factor in that decision came as I was evaluating the Vikings red zone targets. And came up empty. Percy Harvin basically got all of them last year (18) and only came away with two scores.
Rudolph on the other hand, caught all five of his targets inside the 20 and three of them put six on the board. He's 6-foot-6, 259 pounds, has a basketball background, and should have more plays developed for him in Year 2 with the benefit of a full offseason, more cohesion with Christian Ponder, and no Visanthe Shiancoe around.
The Vikings are sure to have a run-heavy attack on offense, so I'm not anticipating big yardage or reception totals, but double-digit touchdowns is a real possibility. It's also worth noting for those concerned about his lack of production in his college career and rookie season that Graham had a similar absence of statistical evidence before his eruption.
4. Brandon Pettigrew - Detroit Lions - |STAR|ADP 82
The Lions' behemoth tight end has already been extremely productive over the last two years (only Jason Witten has more receptions at the position), but his lack of speed and explosive plays seems to be scaring owners off. This may appear to be a diversion from what I stated I would be looking for in "upside" tight ends, but what Pettigrew lacks in quicks, he makes up for in strength.
His 126 targets in 2011, 15th among all players, shows he can use his size to get open and that he has a nice chemistry going with Matthew Stafford. Pettigrew's looks may regress some in 2012 with the expected progression of Titus Young and the addition of Ryan Broyles, but they should also open up more space in the middle and help him improve his 10.0 career yards-per-catch.
Another factor helping him, is those alternate options are small, very small, and shouldn't be a threat to his ridiculous 22 red zone targets from a year ago. Furthermore, he only converted five of those passes into scores, a ratio that can only improve this season.
3. Jermaine Gresham - Cincinnati Bengals - |STAR|ADP 123
Gresham is in a similar situation to Rudolph in that he plays on a run-oriented offense. This means a drastic increase in opportunities, and outlandish yardage or reception totals are not wise expectations. His improvement will have to come from progression in efficiency.
The good news is, also like Rudolph, there aren't a ton of weapons in Cincy to gobble up the attention of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. Particularly when they get down close. A.J. Green is a monster, and obviously will be option no. 1, but defenses will be certain to double-team him at all times. All Gresham will be competing with after that looks to be two rookie wide outs, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, and Brandon Tate, a miscast return man.
Gresham has the physical tools to take the next step. He's 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, and has 4.66 40-speed. In his junior year at Oklahoma he posted 950 yards, 14 touchdowns, and a 14.4 yards-per-reception average. I see that as his upside this season. Not likely, necessarily, but possible. And in the 10th-12th round, that's a pretty good gamble.
2. Fred Davis - Washington Redskins - |STAR|ADP 75
Davis is popular in drafts this summer. But with good reason. He racked up 59 receptions on 88 targets, 796 yards, and three scores in just 12 games last year. He missed four games after being suspended for drug use. The good news is, it wasn't due to injury. The bad news is, if he pops another test he could be done for the year. He's vowed not to let that happen.
So, extrapolating those numbers over a full 16-game schedule adds up to 117 targets, 79 receptions, 1,061 yards, and 4 touchdowns. Sure, the team added some new weapons on the outside, but they also made a dramatic upgrade at quarterback when they drafted Robert Griffin III. Those two moves should probably even out in regards to the effect on Davis.
He's not the tallest guy at 6-foot-4, and therefore not an elite red zone target who projects to have big scoring totals, but he's very good after the catch. Davis is a former running back and those skills haven't vanished. He dashed for 15 20-plus yard grabs and posted an average of 13.5 yards-per-catch in 2011. Both are very healthy figures for a tight end. RGIII is going to need a security blanket as he transitions to NFL coverages and pass rushers, and Davis should be that guy.
1. Jared Cook - Tennessee Titans - |STAR|ADP 129
I love this guy. And I thought everyone else would too after the way he finished up last season. Cook hammered out a re-Gronk-u-lous 21 catches, 335 yards, (16.0 YPR) and one score over the last three games. But there he sits, 129 picks in, surrounded by guys like Greg Little, Mikel Leshoure, and Pierre Thomas.
He'll be working with a young quarterback, but that's not always a bad thing for tight ends. Tennessee has a lot of weapons on the outside. But that's not always a bad thing either. Cook won't catch 100 balls, or even close for that matter. He's somewhat Jordy Nelson-esque though, in that he makes a lot out of what he gets. His 15.5 yards-per-reception were tops among tight ends with at least 40 grabs in 2011. His targets (81) should go up, as should his catch rate (60.5|PERCENT|).
When it comes to athletic ability, few can match Cook. Like the coach in Dazed and Confused said about his Grandmother, Cook's 6-5, 248, and runs a 4.5 40. The ideal measurables if you will.
Again, I'm not expecting Graham/Gronk numbers, but if I had to bet, here's where I'm putting my money. His less-than-stellar hands and lack of red zone production through three years keeps me at a more realistic projection of 65 receptions, 975 yards, and 7 scores, but who's complaining about that with a selection in the 100s?
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Please comment and list your favorite TE breakouts! Sleepers coming next. I'm not shutting it down tonight until it's all out there. Much more to come! Happy drafting.